The Samovar

Overactive imagination: Giddens on risk
June 19, 2007, 1:44 pm
Filed under: Civil Liberties, Politics, Risk, Security, Terrorism

Anthony Giddens has a piece on CiF explaining that we need to crack down on freedom because of the danger of nuclear terrorism. It’s funny and kind of gratifying that this should appear just a couple of days after I posted a long piece arguing the exact opposite. Unusually, the CiF commenters do a fine job of demolishing his argument – to my amazement there didn’t seem to be a single one supporting him.

What’s nice about this piece though is that he explicitly makes all the mistaken arguments rather than concealing the foolishness of his argument.

First, it cannot be known in advance with certainty how great the risk really is. Second, the consequences are potentially cataclysmic, so we have to bend our efforts to preventing them, rather than picking up the damage afterwards. Third, how we respond to the risk – how seriously we take it – affects the very nature of that risk.

I wonder if he’s familiar with Pascal’s wager? This is the argument that says:

  1. There is a non-zero probability that God exists, call this probability p.
  2. If God exists and we believe in Him the rewards are infinite, \infty.
  3. If God exists and we don’t believe in Him, the punishment is infinite, \infty.
  4. If God doesn’t exist and we believe in Him, the reward is zero, and the cost of the belief is finite, call it C.
  5. If God doesn’t exist and we don’t believe in Him, the rewards and costs are zero.
  6. Consequently, on average, your expected reward-cost for believing in God is p\infty-(1-p)C=\infty (because \infty*something non-zero is \infty, and the cost C is finite).
  7. On average, your expected reward-cost for not-believing in God is -p*\infty=-\infty.
  8. Therefore, on the basis of cost-benefit analysis, we should opt to believe in God.

One problem with this wager is that it misses out on the question of which God to believe in. I can hypothesise an infinite number of different possible Gods, each of whom will infinitely punish you if you believe in any of the other ones. So which God do you opt for? Oh nyoe! We’re all doooomed.

And so, I invite readers to imagine other creative disasters we should be worrying about, and what we should be doing about them. I’ll start:

There is a danger that particle accelerators might produce a rogue particle that could destroy all matter in the universe. The chance is low, but the consequences would be infinitely disastrous. Hence, we should shut down all particle accelerators, cancel all teaching of physics, and what they hey, lock up or execute anyone with any knowledge of particle physics.

Update: Unity has a (long) post on this too, as does UK Liberty. Also, some of the CiF commenters came up with the same game as me. Suggestions so far include the threat of alien invasion and how we all should join the army and learn firearms for when it happens; and more pertinently (but less funny), the threat of a future government turning fascist, and how we should therefore not undermine civil liberties. Another person pointed out – if you really take the threat of nuclear terrorism destroying our civilisation seriously, we ought to be teaching people how to survive in a post-nuclear-holocaust society. Unless you think that new terror powers are almost certain to stop the terrorist nuclear bombs, you should consider this as just as high priority.


There is a danger that the teapot orbiting Mars veers off course, re-enters the Earth atmosphere and hits someone on the head. Therefore we should ban walking around in public and dig big tunnels right now!

Comment by woodpigeon

And in case anyone should think that woodpigeon has lost his mind, it was no less eminent a thinker than Bertrand Russell that first warned of the dangers of orbiting teapots!

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

Also woodpigeon – in your avatar picture is that a teapot burning up on re-entry?

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

It would prove there’s no teapot orbiting Mars then, wouldn’t it? 🙂

Comment by woodpigeon

Ooohhh nononononono. It would only prove that THAT teapot is no longer orbiting mars! If there is one teapot orbiting mars, what is the chance that there’s ONLY one?

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

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[…] Security, Politics A while ago, Anthony Giddens wrote a piece on terrorism and security that I replied to rather light heartedly. Others wrote more serious replies – see my previous entry for links. Today […]

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